The New Hanover County Board of Education was expected to make a decision this month on a map that would have changed which high school some students attended. But the board delayed that decision until next year, leaving some potential homebuyers sitting on the fence.
It’s not an unusual situation for a community to have. Past surveys, including a 2013 study by Realtor.com, have found that the vast majority of potential homebuyers find school boundaries important in their search.
Uncertainty about those districts could affect whether parents buy or sell their homes at all at a given time. Both high school and middle school redistricting in New Hanover County is expected to be considered in 2019, while elementary school changes could take place in 2020, according to the current timeline.
“We already have an inventory shortage. There’s many more buyers on the market right now than there are sellers at the time. And so when you have a situation where people are trying to be in certain school districts, they’re either nervous to sell because they don’t know where they need to purchase their next home or they’re scared they’ll end up moving out of the school district that they’re in,” said David Williams, a Realtor with Wilmington-based Century 21 Sweyer & Associates. “And that just causes more of a problem because then you don’t have more homes being listed and on the market, and it causes a lot of concern for buyers because they thought they knew where they wanted to live, and with this up in the air they don’t know where to purchase.”
Williams said he doesn’t think the market would come to a standstill because of the delay in redrawing the high school maps for New Hanover County Schools.
But, “it would be easy for it to calm the market a bit and kind of stall sales somewhat.”
And the delay comes on the cusp of the spring home listing season.
“It’s nice weather, and everybody’s getting their houses fixed up, and everything looks better with the green grass and the flowers,” said Williams, explaining the usual uptick in listings this time of year. “There has to be a certain handful of those sellers who are going to wait this out and kind of see where the [school] lines land.”
School officials use a software program called Davis Demographics and a set of guiding principles set by the school board when redrawing maps. If new maps are adopted by the board next year, it will be the first time in about nine years that the New Hanover County Schools has gone through the redistricting process.
“Philosophically, we don’t want to be a county that redistricts every year. High-growth counties like Wake [County] are usually moving some students on a regular basis. They’re building schools so fast that there are some growth issues there,” New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley said. “This county has historically done it and then leave[s] it alone until it really needs to be done again. With the growth in the county that’s expected, that’s why we’re looking at this. Plus we’re opening a brand new elementary school [Porters Neck Elementary], and that’s forced us to look at redistricting.”
The students who would have gone to Blair Elementary School are occupying the new Porters Neck Elementary School during this school year, and Wrightsville Beach Elementary School students will then attend the new Blair Elementary School building currently under construction off Market Street while Wrightsville Beach Elementary is renovated.
The Wrightsville Beach Elementary improvements represent the last of the school bond projects that voters approved in 2014 totaling $160 million.
Laney High School is the most overcrowded high school in the district, with 395 students over its capacity, followed by Ashley High School at 195 students too many.
The situation is not as simple as building a new high school. “Building schools is, from conception to end, a timely process, a long process because as a school district, we don’t have direct taxing authority. So we have to go to the [New Hanover Board of] County Commissioners, ask for a bond and then get it on the ballot,” Markley said.
That’s just the beginning of the process, and it can take six months. Then the time it takes to build an elementary school is a year to a year and- a-half.
“So you’re two years from when you say, ‘I need a school’ to at the earliest actually seeing the school. In reality, it’s probably going to be three or four years from that point,” Markley said.
High schools require larger footprints, which in turn require more construction time – and more money.
While current estimates put the total cost of a new elementary school at $20 million to $25 million, a middle school is $45 million and a high school is $90 million, the superintendent said.
“The land requirements for a traditional comprehensive high school is 60 acres minimum,” Markley said.
At RiverLights, a master planned community off River Road that could have more than 2,200 homes at full build-out, 15 acres have been set aside for a potential school in the future, but that would only be enough to accommodate an elementary school, he said.
Instead of building a high school any time soon, plans include expanding some of the school system’s choice options – Isaac Bear Early College High School at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington Early College High School at Cape Fear Community College’s North Campus and SEATECH (Southeast Area Technical High School), which is also at CFCC’s North Campus on Blue Clay Road.
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